March 28, 2020, Sitka, Alaska
Evacuations seldom go smoothly, they’re chaotic, and messy, changing by the hour. I know, I’ve been through several, either as the evacuee or the guy on the other end of the phone trying to organize it in my work at different foreign aid missions. I have some sympathy for William Burke, Chief Maritime Officer for Carnival, quoted in the March 27 New York Times:
“This week the rules are different than they were a week ago. We learned a lot about how to do this, good and bad. I wish I had learned from somebody else doing it.”
From what I’ve read different Carnival companies did it differently. We were on the MS Amsterdam’s World Cruise and from my perspective Holland America did some key things wrong. This criticism is not directed at the Amsterdam Captain, crew and staff, who performed professionally under stress. It’s aimed the home office in Seattle.
The most important part of the business model for a cruise line whose market is older cruisers is trust. Trust that the line will keep you safe and hassle free. For many on Amsterdam Holland America broke that trust. Many of the older cruisers on the world cruise do not really understand how on-line bookings work. They are not used to making their own complex travel arrangements, they leave it to a travel agent, a kid or grandkid, and some have always had an administrative assistant make arrangements. As one Amsterdam staffer told me “We have captains of industry who have never made their own plane reservation.”
HAL forgot this and made it worse with terrible communications. The first word I got that our cruise was ending in Fremantle was from a Holland American press release I read on line. Several passengers read this and the rumor spread. As it spread it was distorted. I suspect the captain was blindsided by Seattle. But in that press release was a paragraph that read:
“Guests who have booked their own air should first contact their airline to make ticket changes. Holland America Line will rebook all guests who purchased their air through the Flight Ease program and will endeavor to help others who booked their own air if they are encountering issues.”
Several hours later the Captain confirmed this. Panic spread among some of the passengers. Some live in South Florida and had no need for HAL’s “Flight Ease” program. Others came in their cars and RVs or by train. Folks, like us made their own air arrangements. The Internet on the ship was never much good and once this news came out it became impossible. You entered your password, the internet dropped, you did it again, and a third time. Then you need to reset your password. The “Cellular at Sea” was hardly better. Calls failed more often than they went through. A whole set of people felt “abandoned, on their own.” The lines at the service desk were long, people looked stricken, were getting testy and the staff behind the desk were taking abuse they didn’t deserve.
This went on for almost two days when the Captain came on and said we would be getting a letter outlining new procedures later that night. It didn’t come that night but when I got up in the morning, I had an email from my travel agent (I was using HTML so I had useable email some of the time) with the letter signed by Captain Mercer. Seattle released a letter to TAs before the Captain got to release it setting off a new round of rumors, concern and panic. And the information was wrong! I went to the Guest Services Director, Crystal, and told her they had been blindsided. She knew. When the letter actually came from the Captain hours later it was different in material ways from what my TA sent. But the new letter offered some hope to passengers who could not get on-line or get a phone line.
“We will support everyone with onward travel to ensure all guests can return home safely and we will be arranging to accommodate you in a hotel for as long as necessary pending your onward flights.”
I had already gotten reservations home but was happy for my friends. The letter offered those of us making our own arrangements up to $1,250 compensation. That was also good news but the total of $2,500 offered fell just under $750 short of getting us home to Alaska economy class.
The letter also offered everyone free internet. That meant everyone was trying to use the same “tubes” (Alaskans will get that) making the internet even more worthless. They also offered free phone calls which I availed myself of to see what coverage the HAL “Platinum Protection Plan” trip interruption coverage offered. The plan said it would cover you with the same class of air service as you had booked for your own return home. Our homeward ticket was first class so I was hoping we could get business class. The agent told me that the policy did not cover this type of “trip interruption.” The Platinum Protection Plan turned out to be brass, all shiny and show.
However, the Captain’s letter, as released on the ship had one huge difference from the original release. The letter from HAL sent to me by my TA said:
“While our cruise has been cancelled, we appreciate that there may be a very small number of guests who do not meet the International Air Transport Association (IATA) fitness standards for air travel or are unable to return home by aircraft due to specific medical reasons. While this would typically be unusual to do, given the unprecedented circumstances we are all in, the Company is willing to provide passage back to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on a case-by-case basis, for those with such medical conditions deemed by the ship’s doctor to require it…”
There was a rush to the doctor, overwhelming and, according to the Captain, intimidating, the medical staff. But when the Captain’s real letter came out it said EVERYONE was off the ship by March 23, no exceptions. (Carnival sister lines Princess and Cunard are, right now, taking limited numbers of people back by ship. Those ships are still in transit.) Many passengers felt safer on the ship than flying through infected airports on crowded planes.
The repatriation efforts took up the efforts of the entire Guest Services and Shore Excursion staffs, aided by the Seattle office. Once they got on it, they did a good job getting people reservations home. But while people were waiting for reservations to be confirmed they were somewhere between uncomfortable and terrified. HAL told us to keep track of our hotel, meal and other expenses and apply for compensation. But as a final insult they charged guests US$59 ($118 for two of us) for transport to the airport. It cost us about half that to take a cab to Perth and then to the airport, including a generous tip.
For most people those last days of the cruise were not happy ones. They felt frightened and betrayed. Most of the passengers did not sleep well those last 5 days, Suzi and me included. Several who had taken past world cruises said “never again on Holland.” When things settle down that may change.
I was able to enjoy some of those last days, sitting in a deck chair reading and watching the sea on beautiful days, on the top deck with Suzi watching the Southern Cross, Magallanic Clouds and Milky Way on a perfectly clear night and working out excess adrenaline swimming laps.
Leaving the ship was sad, with staff and the captain lined up wishing us safe journeys, I especially felt for Captain Mercer because he was forced into a terrible situation, made worse by the home office, on his retirement voyage. He and the onboard staff were magnificent.
Looking at the way the crisis has grown I think HAL made the right decision to try to get everyone home as quickly as possible even though some shipmates were terrified at the thought of flying and traveling through possibly infected airports and according to emails some shipmates have yet to made it home. But ships still at sea are encountering problems that may only get worse. I’m glad I flew.
So, back to Mr. Burke’s quote opening this post, they learned a lot, I only hope they learned the right lessons. From my perspective those are:
Have consistent messaging. Seattle should not undercut the staff on the scene.
Provide your best customers (those who take long voyages) with the feeling of security they think they’re paying for. From the start (as sister company Cunard did, according to people getting off QM2 in Fremantle) agree to take over all repatriation arrangements. “Tell us where you are going and what class you traveled on and we will make reservations, get you to the airport and get you a hotel if needed. We will monitor the changing flight situation and make whatever changes needed. If you bought into our Flight Ease plan, we’ll pay the whole thing, if you didn’t, we will compensate you up to $1,250 airfare plus hotels and transfers. Now relax and enjoy your last days on Amsterdam.”
As an alternative, given the cancelation of flights and the number of planes taken out of service, they could have charted a few planes, Perth to Fort Lauderdale for those living in South Florida, traveling by land or with plane reservations already paid for. Perhaps a second chartered flight to the Midwest or west coast. I don’t know why they didn’t do that, perhaps they had good reason.
There are companies that specialize in repatriating folks from trouble spots. Perhaps Carnival, as a corporation, should consider employing one of these firms to help when this type of thing happens in the future.
In the end I wonder how, not only HAL, but other lines will win back market. Many have unpleasant tales of their repatriation that will grow with repetition. News coverage (Including an unflattering article in the South Florida Sun Sentinel about Amsterdam) was bad. Some cruise ships are getting the reputation as “plague ships” and are having trouble finding safe haven. Regulars who trusted HAL to provide a safe, hassle free trip need to be won back. I don’t know how they will do that.
This is my penultimate post. My last post will look back at the totality of an experience most people will not have, to visit unusual and interesting places, learn incredible things and make lasting friends. I have to end on a positive note because, on reflection, that’s the way I feel.
[RM1]Cover shot, Sunset over Fremantle, Suzi McClear